Los Alamos Lab Adjusts Security After Breach

Last month, police found classified documents belonging to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in a mobile home near the facility. Now new security rules are taking shape to prevent such security breaches.

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The Los Alamos National Laboratory discovered a breach in its security last month, and now it's come up with new security rules. As NPR's David Kestenbaum reports, police had found classified documents belonging to the nuclear weapons lab at a nearby mobile home. Some of those documents were on a small data storage device called a memory stick.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: Jessica Quintana(ph) was 22 years old and working as a kind of librarian at the lab when she made what her lawyer calls a 22-year-old mistake: She brought her work home. Walked out with a couple hundred pages from classified documents and that memory stick, a data storage device the size of your thumb capable of holding an entire encyclopedia. It contained some classified documents and, according to her lawyer, some baby pictures.

Now there are some new rules. Michael Anastasio, the lab's director who took over this year, agreed to talk to NPR. He says memory sticks are now banned from classified computing areas.

Mr. MICHAEL ANASTASIO (Director, Los Alamos National Laboratory): Any kind of these removable memory devices are prohibited. We've also disabled the so-called port on the computer where you can plug these things in.

KESTENBAUM: He says in some cases the lab has filled the ports with glue. Jessica Quintana's job was to scan paper documents so they could go into an electronic database. She worked in a vault-type room, no cameras allowed. You could bring in a government cell phone if you removed the battery first so it wouldn't work. iPods were restricted, but the rules said nothing about memory sticks, which people often carry around on their key chains.

Mr. ANASTASIO: One of our challenges, of course, is that technology moves forward very rapidly, often faster than you can write policies.

KESTENBAUM: Do you ever use a memory stick?

Mr. ANASTASIO: Yes, I do.

KESTENBAUM: For how many years?

Mr. ANASTASIO: Oh, for the last few years. I couldn't say exactly.

KESTENBAUM: Anastasio says the regulations needed updating, but the central problem is that someone broke the law. Jessica Quintana had been trained to handle classified material. The lab has her signature proving it, he says. The lab looked into whether that training needed improvement, but Anastasio says it's pretty clear as it is.

Mr. ANASTASIO: There's no question in anybody's mind that if you take classified material offsite, you're violating the law. Everybody understands that. I think the general public would understand that. That if you take classified material offsite to a non-secure location, that's just the wrong thing to do. That's not hard to understand.

KESTENBAUM: The lab stepped up searches of employees leaving sensitive areas. Quintana had what is known as a Q clearance, which means she was allowed to handle nuclear weapons design information. But Anastasio says the materials she took home did not contain information about current weapons designs.

Mr. ANASTASIO: If it had gotten into the wrong hands - and we have no information that it did - I would judge the damage to national security is relatively low.

KESTENBAUM: Police found the documents by accident. They were responding to a call from neighbors about a fight. A man living in the trailer was arrested on drug charges. Jessica Quintana was not living there. Quintana is cooperating with the FBI, according to her lawyer, Stephen Aarons. He says the FBI interviewed her last week for three hours.

Mr. STEPHEN AARONS (Jessica Quintana's Lawyer): You know, she's very remorseful and apprehensive waiting to see what the federal government decides should be done.

KESTENBAUM: Aarons says Quintana sort of knew she wasn't supposed to take home classified material. He says it apparently hadn't sunk in. He says she took the material so she could get extra work done at home.

Mr. AARONS: She only had so many hours where she could be there in the vault, and the time deadline was coming due.

KESTENBAUM: Quintana worked for a lab subcontractor. The lab says there wasn't really a deadline for finishing the work and the contract had been renewed in the past. Jessica Quintana has not been charged with anything. Her lawyer is asking the Justice Department to go easy on her.

Mr. AARONS: We're hoping that she doesn't, you know, have to go behind bars for something like this. But it is something that's out there, which is part of her anxiety and mine, too.

KESTENBAUM: This sort of crime does not always result in jail time. Last year, Sandy Berger, who served as national security advisor to President Clinton, admitted he had snuck classified documents out of the National Archives. Berger was fined $10,000.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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